Monday, July 23, 2018

Avoid Submission Encounters (They Throttle Player Agency)

Being a DM is a lot like being a stage magician. You're trying to create a mystique, build an atmosphere, and to get your audience to do what you want without them knowing you influenced them. Which is why you need to remember that subtlety is your friend, and you're trying to finesse your group into following certain paths. Don't use a crowbar to lay down a railroad, making it clear there is only one way for them to go in order to continue the game.

I talked about this last week in More Than One Way To Skin A Cat, which was all about DMs avoiding trampling on player agency, but I thought this week I'd focus on a specific tactic that never works as well as you think it will when it occurs to you. Namely the idea of the submission encounter.

And the total CR for this encounter is... you know what, don't bother.

Why Submission Encounters Are A Bad Idea

A submission encounter is when, no matter what actions the players take, the end result has been pre-determined by the DM. Whether it's, "you're all going to be knocked out and captured so you can get shanghaied onto a pirate ship," or, "I want you thrown in the dungeon so we can do the cool jailbreak part of the campaign," the point is that the players have no real choice, here. It's, "stand and fight until we eventually go down," or, "try to run away."

You get two black marks if running away also leads to PCs being forced into the route you pre-ordained as the DM. Seriously, keep a chase deck on-hand, and don't be afraid to use it if they want to try getting away! More on the advantages of these decks can be found in If You're A DM, You Should Get Your Hands on a Chase Deck.

It's just one guy! Come on, we can take him!
The important, dividing line between a submission encounter and a difficult one is that even in the most difficult encounter the enemy has limits that were set by you before anyone rolled initiative. It has a set armor class, a set number of hit points, and all of its abilities are already on the sheet. If there is more than one creature in the encounter, then you know how many of them there are. If there are other creatures around who might show up to participate, you know how many groups there are, and what circumstances (combat is loud, war horn is blown, signal flare is lit, etc.) will bring them running at the PCs. All of that is fine. Even if the PCs are taking on impossible odds, like trying to fight a dragon while they're level 2, or storming into an encampment that they know has 300 orcs in it, that is not a submission encounter.

A submission encounter is specifically where you keep the fight going until the dice eventually roll in favor of your bad guys, and create the result you want, as a DM.

Go back to the dragon example. Say that your preferred outcome is the PCs being spared by the dragon, in exchange for doing it a service... the problem is that they're actually high enough level to take it. Not only that, but they score some serious critical hits using the right weapons, and by the numbers, this dragon should be seriously dead. If you choose to keep feeding that dragon phantom hit points until he eventually K.O.'s the party so you can run your cut-scene, that is a submission encounter. Ditto if you sent a squad of orc bounty hunters to capture the PCs, but they took that squad out, so you just have more and more orcs come streaming out of the trees until, eventually, the PCs are taken down.

What's the big deal, you might ask? If it's in the interest of the story, why would players object?

The simple answer is because they're here to play, not to sight-see. If the DM is going to declare that a thing happens, regardless of their input, abilities, or strategies, then why waste their time pretending they have free will? Most of the time the answer to that question is, "because if I just make this thing happen, I worry that my players won't have fun, or that they'll object to how I did it."

If that's the case, then stop trying to force a certain course of action to happen.

Instead, prepare an encounter that is likely to be challenging and/or which should accomplish your goal. If the players genuinely defeat it through the use of clever tactics, lucky rolls, class abilities you forgot about, or whatever else, don't take that win away from them. Let the players win, and accept that your plot was foiled with grace and dignity. Then, ask how it changed things overall. If the bounty hunters were sent by a lieutenant bad guy, does he step up his plans to capture them by sending a bigger goon squad next time? Or by sending a lieutenant to use different methods of capture? If the local big scary monster is killed, did it have allies who are looking for revenge on his killers? Or, if the goon squad that tried to capture them were sworn officers of the law, does their failure to apprehend the PCs now mean there is a general watch out for them, bringing every bounty hunter, man-catcher, mercenary, and glory-seeker out of the woodwork to try to find them to claim the reward (like some of the folks in 100 Random Mercenary Companies, for example, who specialize in this sort of thing)?

Remember, you don't have to make the thing you want happen the first time. Let events take their natural course, and see what happens. Even if your plans for a given encounter don't succeed, use that as fodder to make the next encounter they have to deal with. Especially if there were survivors from the first one who might carry word back to their masters about what happened.

Anytime there's an encounter, ask what happens whether the PCs win, or whether they lose. That way you already have a flow chart to follow, you can more easily roll with what's going on, and you won't feel the need to keep spawning monsters until your players figure out that you're just going to keep chucking baddies at them until they eventually give up, surrender, or run away.

That's all for this Moon Pope Monday installment. If you agree, disagree, etc., then toss your thoughts in the comments below. If you'd like to see more of my work, head over to my Vocal profile (or just check out my Gamers archive). Alternatively, you could stop in at the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio, where I help out from time to time. To keep up on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to help support me so I can keep bringing great content straight to you, consider either Buying Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to give me a tip once a month.

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  1. Prison Break Scenarios are never fun. they are barely tolerable as a way to start a video game, but i don't like the idea of being captured halfway through a campaign just to do a prison break that introduces a Deus Ex Machina in the form of a new NPC or few.

    NPC allies are fine, i don't mind recruiting them, even if they have PC levels of power, as long as it isn't Gandalf Grossly overpowering encounters designed to challenge the rest of the fellowship. don't through a Solar that happens to be a 20th level wizard to help a 1st level party.

  2. Almost as bad as the badly run Mary Sue GMPC. I am certainly tempted to throw this kind of thing into my games but I am saved by the fact that I don't have a game going.
    Good article, and sound warning.

  3. Is it alright to start a campaign this way?

    1. starting a campaign with a prison break is fine if you find a way to get around the gear requirements of certain character types like a rogue's dagger, a fighter's signature weapon or a wizard's spellbook and component pouch.

      prison break scenarios tend to favor monks and sorcerers because a monk doesn't lose their unarmed damage when stripped by the warden and the sorcerer doesn't lose their spells when they don't have a spellbook. fighters, rogues and wizards might as well be warriors, experts and commoners respectively.

    2. Step 1 of any prison break once you're out of your cell is always to find your weapons and equipment. Following narrative tropes, they should be within short walking distance of the PCs' cells and the guard watching over the weapons should probably be asleep on the job, or else be conveniently called away to deal with another situation so that he doesn't notice the PCs.

    3. if that is the case? what is the point of imprisoning the player characters and stripping away thier gear in the first place if you are just going to give it back to them and spend 15 minutes recalculating stats? this is why the prison break scenario falls apart. either the PCs conveniently get thier gear back in the beginning, or you have a bunch of sorcerers and monks built to optimize around starting with minimal gear. just like low wealth games. if you starve PCs of magic weapons, they are just going to roll casters to get around it.